Dementia is one of the biggest concerns many of us have as we get older. Dementia affects our memory, communication and the ability to carry out daily tasks. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common causes of dementia. See our articles ‘How do you know if you are suffering from Dementia?’ and ‘Alzheimer’s, Vascular or Lewy Bodies? Dementia explained’.
Promising research now shows that we can reduce our risk of dementia through a combination of simple but effective brain healthy lifestyle changes. By identifying and controlling your personal risk factors, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and take effective steps to preserve your cognitive abilities.
Researchers are now focusing on prevention as well as treatment as incidence of dementia has increased.
Six Steps to Dementia Prevention
Dementia is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. Some, like our age and genetics, are outside our control. However, there are six steps for a brain-healthy lifestyle that are within our control.
Step 1: Regular exercise
According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce our risk of developing dementia by up to 50%.
It can also slow down further deterioration in those who have already started to develop dementia. Exercise protects against dementia by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.
We should do 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. Ideally, this should be a combination of cardio activities (to get our heart rate up) as well as strengthening exercises (to prevent muscle wastage whilst maintaining brain health). Swimming, walking and lifting light weights will help stave off dementia. It is also important to include balance and coordination exercise to help prevent falls. Exercises like yoga or using balance balls at home can be very helpful.
Step 2: Social Interaction
It is vital to have social interaction for our overall wellbeing as well as our brain health. Developing and maintaining a strong network of friends is critical in preventing loneliness and keeping the brain active. Regular connection face-to-face with someone who cares about us is vital.
Good starting points are:
- Local clubs and social groups, visiting our local community centre
- Taking group classes
- Picking up the phone or using email and connecting to others via social networks such as Facebook
- Make a weekly date with friends
- Get out, why not go to the park or a museum?
Step 3: Healthy diet
By adjusting eating habits, we can help reduce inflammation and protect our brain.
Cut down on sugar. Sugary foods and refined carbs such as white flour, white rice, and pasta can lead to dramatic spikes in blood sugar which inflame our brain. Watch out for hidden sugar in all kinds of packaged foods from cereals and bread to pasta sauce and low or no-fat products.
Enjoy a Mediterranean diet. That means plenty of vegetables, beans, whole grains, fish and olive oil and limited processed food.
Avoid trans fats ‘bad fats’ that can cause inflammation in our brain. Reduce consumption by avoiding fast food, fried and packaged foods.
Get plenty of omega-3 fats. These foods can have a preventative effect. Food sources include cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel. Fish oil supplement can also help.
Cook at home when we can as home-cooked food is lower in salt, sugar and additives and is fresher.
Step 4: Stay mentally active
Learning new things and challenging our brain helps to prevent dementia, “use it or lose it” we might say! Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction, and organization offer the greatest protection. Try to learn something new such as a foreign language, practice a musical instrument, learn to paint or sew, or read. Interestingly the greater the novelty, complexity, and challenge, the greater the benefit.
If that all sounds too daunting, try a crossword puzzle, play board games such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
Step 5: Quality sleep
It’s common for people with dementia to suffer from insomnia and other sleep issues but warding off insomnia is essential for brain health. Sleep has a restorative function which facilitates problem-solving, supports memory and regulates mood. Studies have shown the importance of uninterrupted sleep for flushing out brain toxins.
Suggestions for improving sleep include exercising more, removing digital devices from the bedroom, practising yoga, and going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath, do some light stretches, dim the lights.
Be careful about taking a nap in the day as although it may recharge our batteries it can affect our night-time sleep routine. If insomnia is a problem, consider eliminating napping or keep it to just 30 minutes.
Step 6: Stress management
High levels of stress accelerate brain ageing while managing it effectively diminishes the impact on the brain. Several studies showed that people who were taught to see stress as a positive had lower cortisol levels and reported fewer symptoms of depression.
Manage your stress response with deep, abdominal breathing. Schedule daily relaxation activities. Keeping stress under control requires regular effort.
Make relaxation a priority, whether it’s a walk in the park, playtime with the dog, yoga, or a soothing bath. Make fun a priority. All work and no play is not good for your stress levels or your brain. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy.
Above all remember the old adage ‘laughter is the best medicine’